Submitted Date 09/26/2022

When Toth entered the bar, the locals instinctively looked around, frowning, sizing him up; they could immediately tell he wasn't one of them, but just exactly what and from where he was, they couldn't say. He didn't have the arrogant look and tailored clothes of Northerners and he didn't have the slumped-over affect of West Coast types and he didn't have the retro hesitancy of Uplanders. What he did have was a precision and grace of movement that took even the most perceptive of them--and none of them were heavily armed in that area--some time to place.

By the time one of them did, Toth was already through the open bar seating and to the booths that lined the dark-paneled walls. He raised his right hand and scanned the booths; when his palm was pointed at the right one, the device implanted beneath the skin there vibrated. He dropped his hand and moved toward it, slipping into the empty bench seat without acknowledging the woman who was seated on the other side.

She had noticed him when he came through the door and had been watching his approach. Unlike the locals, she knew right away who and what he was--but of course, she was not a local.

She reached across the tabletop and grasped his right hand, turning it over and holding her right palm over his wrist. The implant in her wrist vibrated and that was her confirmation of Toth's identity. She did it just to be on record as having confirmed him; she already knew his identity and would have spoken with him even if he hadn't confirmed. "You're late," she said, her voice rising at the end as was the fashion among Floaters.

"I'm late," he repeated. His voice started out high and swung low at the end of the short utterance; this too was the fashion.

She responded by beginning a recitation of a string of numbers: "Seven, nine, nine, two, four, seven, five six, three...." It went on for some time, and as she dictated, Toth's midbrain implant recorded the numbers and entered them one by one into his unlock protocol. It was all completely effortless and occurred almost unconsciously, but only almost. Toth was aware of the input and if a mistake in the transcription occurred, he would feel it and stop the woman. But there was no mistake, and as she finished dictating the final number--the sixty-eighth--Toth felt his implant release the dose of relaxin and the resulting release of the tension in his muscles, particularly his shoulders. The woman knew the unlock sequence had been successful too. She was trained to notice the tell-tale movements of temporalis and the levator anguli orbis as they relaxed in response to the hormone.

"That's better," Toth said, more to himself than to her.

"Do you know where you are?" she said.

Toth looked around the bar and really saw it for the first time. He had seen it when he'd entered, but that was before the unlock protocol had opened his midbrain and enabled it to communicate with his occipital lobes, where the visual input from his eyes were processed. "Yes, I think so," he said. "Boston, 2015. Sometime late in the year, it looks like."

"It's September 18, 2015," she muttered quietly but distinctly. "September 18."

"I'm late," Toth said.

"Yes, you are late, but I think it's okay." The woman was now looking into her left palm, where letters arranged into words arranged into sentences were forming on the skin there. It was as if they were being projected onto the skin from behind it somehow. She scanned the text quickly. "We need to find the Iceman and then we need to get off this planet before someone finds--"

She stopped suddenly as she noticed a young woman approaching their booth. The woman wore a mid-length blue skirt, white shirt over it; her long hair was pushed under a baseball cap. Beside her, floating next to her head and moving with her, was a spherical object, silver, smooth, and humming. It was about the size of the woman's head, and it maintained its distance from her as she moved toward them. "Hello," she said brightly. "I'm Madison, and I'll be taking care of you tonight." Her voice rose at the end of the sentence in the Floater way, but she didn't appear to be a Floater--she was too pale, for one thing, and she was thin. Floaters weren't pale, they weren't thin, and they didn't have silver floating basketballs for pets, but there she was, uptalking like a Floater.

"Care of me tonight," Toth repeated the tail end of her sentence, as also was the fashion. This communicated to her--or at least Toth intended it to--that he considered himself to be her superior socially. The verbal gesture was her invitation to acknowledge her inferiority by responding with a mild disagreeing set-phrase such as Oh, no you won't or Only in your dreams or You and what army?" When spoken with a smile, these phrases confirmed her understanding of their relation and served as a promise that she would conform to the expectations that the relationship demanded.

She didn't do this, though. She repeated what she had said in the first place: "I'll be taking care of you tonight." She included a strong uptalk at the end, displaying in this way her arrogance and commitment to being treated as an equal.

The woman sitting across from Toth found this a little puzzling, but smiled slightly to see Toth struggle to handle the challenge. If the woman succeeded in avoiding being forced into the socially inferior position, Toth would be forced to avert his eyes from hers for the rest of their encounter this evening. While the exchange between he and the woman might be expected to be short, Toth would still find it most uncomfortable on several fronts. First, he would have been taken down a notch in front of the woman in the booth--a colleague who would wear on her display square a record of the exchange, visible for all to see. Second, he would have to speak to the woman in SquealTalk. The degree to which this would humiliate Toth would make all three of them uncomfortable.

Toth stood up and addressed the silver sphere. "Controller, say aggression setting."

The silver sphere rotated in place slightly and then it was ready to provide an answer: "Aggression at Level 24."

"Adjust aggression level to 10," Toth said, and in a moment, there was a change in the woman's face, a relaxation. Toth knew very well it couldn't be relaxin; women waiters in hospital waiting rooms don't have midbrain implants. What the sphere had done was send a radio wave out, and that wave had found a hormone controller implanted in the woman's liver.

Toth continued to talk to the sphere. "Redirect upper nervous system control to 17757," he said. He said the number out phonetically, digit by digit: one seven seven five seven. After each digit, there was a click somewhere inside the sphere and the woman's face relaxed a little bit.


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